NJ Court Upholds $525,000 Sexual Harassment Jury Verdict

A New Jersey Appellate Division has affirmed a jury verdict of $525K in favor of a former customer service representative against her former company, RockTenn Co., and supervisor for claims of hostile work environment and unlawful retaliation. This sexual harassment case is another reminder to all New Jersey employers of the importance of having effective anti-discrimination policies in place that stop and remediate workplace sexual harassment.

In the case, Velez v. RockTenn Company and Raymond Perry,  the employee, Ms. Velez began her employment with RockTenn as a customer service representative in November, 2010 earning $45,000 per year.  Shortly after beginning her employment, Ms. Velez’s supervisor, Mr. Perry, engaged in sexually harassing behavior toward her.  The unwelcomed sexual harassment included Mr. Perry showing Ms. Velez a picture of his girlfriend and telling Ms. Velez that they had recently broke up.  Mr. Perry commented that his girlfriend had “nice thighs” and he loved Latino women. Ms. Velez, who is also Latino, testified that Mr. Perry would inappropriate look at her breasts, legs and backside while he spoke to her at work and one time asked her out on a date.  Ms. Velez also testified that he asked her out and that his conduct caused her to avoid going into his office.  At the company holiday party, Mr. Perry again showed a picture of his girlfriend to Ms. Velez and announced that she was trying to convince him to have a threesome.  A month later in January, 2011, Mr. Perry placed his hand over Ms. Velez’s hand during a work-related conversation and stated, “Oh, I should not be doing this, should I?”

Mr. Perry also exhibited controlling behavior over Ms. Velez during her employment.  Mr. Perry attempted to limit Ms. Velez’s interactions with other employees and went as far as to instruct her not to have lunch with another male employee, whom Mr. Perry did not believe was a good person. Mr. Perry also prevented Ms. Velez from attending a mandatory training, which Ms. Velez claims was in retaliation for her rebuffing of Mr. Perry’s harassing conduct.

A few months later, Ms. Velez was selected for termination.  RockTenn claimed that she was selected because of poor performance and because of corporate restructuring.  Leading up to her termination, Mr. Perry criticized Ms. Velez’s job performance and ultimately recommended her termination.  Ms. Velez claimed the Mr. Perry’s behavior created a hostile work environment and that she was terminated in response to the complaints she made to HR concerning Mr. Perry’s sexual harassment.  Ms. Velez also filed a claim for quid pro quo sexual harassment, but voluntarily dismissed this claim prior to trial.

A claim for hostile work environment arises under New Jersey law when an employee is subjected to severe or pervasive sexual harassment that a reasonable woman believes the conditions of employment have been alerted and the working environment has become hostile or abusive.   A claim for sexual harassment retaliation occurs when an employer takes adverse employment action against an employee for opposing sexual harassment.  A claim for quid pro quo supervisor sexual harassment will arise when a supervisor or manager attempts to make an employee’s submission to a sexual demand or favor a condition of his or her employment.

The jury found in Ms. Velez’s favor on her sexual harassment hostile work environment claim and that she was unlawfully retaliated against for the complaints she made to HR about the sexual harassment.  The jury also found Mr. Perry personally liable for his own sexually harassing behavior. The total jury award in favor of Ms. Velez was $525,000.  As the prevailing party, Ms. Perry’s employment lawyers were awarded attorneys’ fees and costs in the amount of $423,000.00.

This case should serve as a stark warning of the continued intolerance society has against employers who permit sexual harassment from occurring at the workplace.  Companies who do not have effective anti-discrimination policies and do not properly investigate claims of sexual harassment will continue to be at risk for substantial monetary exposure when their conduct or tolerance for sexual harassment causes harm to victims.  Our New Jersey sexual harassment lawyers represent individuals in all areas of wrongful termination.  If you believe you are the victim of sexual harassment, please feel free to contact our office to speak to one of our New Jersey sexual harassment lawyers concerning the facts and circumstances of your potential case.